06 Jul 2020

Valery Heussler (1920-2007), Vulcano, 1952

What a desolate world is shown in the painting «Vulcano» that dates from 1952! Everything seems dull and deserted. The moon hangs heavily over a dark seascape casting its shadow on the beach. Under the night sky an extinct volcano with multiple nested craters arises, while two menacing rock pinnacles emerge from the deep sea. An uninhabited world? Everything seems inanimate, except for the small, black-robed skeleton woman. Wearing a veil over her head, she sits in a thinker's pose, placed in the foreground of the painting, and looks down at the washed-up flotsam at her feet. As if the sea had released relics of the past, different skeletons and objects emerge from the sand. Among them is a skull in a summer hat with long, blond hair and a child's doll. They represent materialized memories of past times, which appear here as a memento mori. In the touching depiction of the thoughtful skeleton woman, perhaps an alter ego of the artist, a mischievous look is perceived.

The painting was created after the war when the artist started developing her fantastic-surreal style. It shows one of the darkest settings. Of similar melancholic character is the «Tränensee» from 1953, a group of works from this period, which is the result of Heussler’s study trips (1951/1952 and 1954) to the Liparian islands. The austere, volcanic landscape of this region must have had a great impact on her. The title «Vulcano» refers to a smaller island of the same name with an extinct volcano, which bears a great resemblance to the cone depicted. A mythical place where, according to legend, the workshop of Vulcanus, the Roman god of fire and forge, was located. This craft, that was also pursued by the artist’s father, will later be adopted by her.

As the art critic Annelise Zwez writes, the representation of the idealised human body was no longer possible for Heussler after 1945 due to the remarkable impact of the war in the nearby countries. As a result, her paintings reflect these enigmatic, surreal moments. She invents bizarre creatures, such as mummies, skeletons or the «Bümpfe», animal-like creatures that become protagonists of her abysmal works and act in ambiguous atmospheres. A self-portrait from 1954 in the collection of the Kunsthaus Aarau shows the artist holding such a creature in her arms. She holds it close to her body, like a baby or a lapdog. Other multi-figure scenes evoke eccentric, carnival-like events that inspired many artists of this generation in Basel. Furthermore, Heussler painted lanterns for the Basler Fasnacht and drummed in one of the first gender-mixed Fasnacht cliques.

Heussler shared the surrealistic references in her painting with other contemporaries such as Walter Kurt Wiemken (1907–1940), Niklaus Stoecklin (1896–1982), Irène Zurkinden (1909–1987) or Walter Moeschlin (1902–1961). Georg Schmidt, then director of the museum, acquired three of her works for the Kunstmuseum Basel in an exhibition in Leverkusen in 1955 – including this work. In the text for the catalogue, Schmidt describes Heussler's works as representing «astonishingly bold fantasies, cruelly-lovingly thought through, and entirely executed».

Valery Heussler was a committed and time-sensitive artist who was deeply concerned with contemporary events. Her political position is explicitly expressed in her late works, where enigmatic figures also play a crucial role. In the 1960s, she started working as a sculptor, and at the age of 47 she continued her education at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule. She learned how to work with heavy metal, how to weld and forge. If you walk through the park at the Theodorsgraben you will encounter some of her late sculptures. In the upper part of the park there are three stele-like structures with large chromium steel tubes, the «Eye and Ear People». Synchronized and without individual charisma, they become a kind of memorial against a uniform, rigid society. Further down, closer to the Rhine, a headless figure on a stone slab with remarkably large hands is found, hovering over a loaf of bread. The sculpture «Sharing Bread» declares solidarity with the lawless and starving people – an outstanding plea for humanity.

Autorin: Iris Kretzschmar, Kunsthistorikerin, Kunstvermittlerin und freie Autorin